Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts

Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts (c.1850)

For the second consecutive day I want to present a painting to you which has a connection with a poem.  My Daily Art Display painting today is entitled Found Drowned and was painted by the Victorian painter George Frederic Watts in 1850.  It is almost certain that the idea for the painting came from Watts having read The Bridge of Sighs, the poem written by Thomas Hood just before his death in 1845.

Watts was born in London in 1817 and his Christian names came from the fact that he was born on the composer, George Frederic Handel’s birthday.  He was brought up in an impoverished household, did not attend school, being taught at home by his father.  Despite these early setbacks in life, he achieved acceptance into the Royal Academy when he was eighteen years of age.  In 1843 he won first prize in an artistic competition to design a mural for the Houses of Parliament and although this never came to fruition, the monetary value of the prize enabled him to travel to Italy.  He remained in Italy until 1847 at which time he returned to London.

On his return to London he made the acquaintance of Henry Prinseps, an amateur artist and director of the East India Company, along with his circle of friends and in 1850, Prinseps, his wife Sara, along with some of her sisters and Watts obtained a twenty-one year lease on Little Holland House which belonged to Henry Fox, 4th Baron Holland, and a friend of Watts.  The house, not only became a place for them to all live and entertain their friends, but it gave Watts a studio for his painting.

In 1864 Watts painted portraits of the Terry sisters, Kate Terry and her famous actress sister Ellen Terry.  Watts was besotted by Ellen and despite the fact that she was still a little way short of seventeen years of age and he was thirty years her senior, they married.  The marriage was doomed to failure and a year after the marriage she eloped with her lover forcing Watts to sue for divorce.

In the early 1870’s when the lease ran out on the Little Holland House, Watts acquired another house in London and also one in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight.  In 1877 his divorce with Ellen Terry finally came through and nine years later at the age of 69 Watts re-married, this time his bride was Mary Fraser-Tytler,  a Scottish designer and social reformer, some thirty-three years his junior!   In 1891 he bought land in Guilford, Surrey and they named the establishment Limnerslease, which was a combination of the words “limner” meaning artist and “leasen” meaning glean and by it they had built the Watts Gallery which was a museum dedicated to his work.  It was the first and only remaining purpose-built gallery in Britain devoted to a single artist.  It eventually opened in April 1904, shortly before the death of Watts.

So that is the story of today’s artist and so now let us study his poignant painting and understand why he should depict such a heart-rending scene.  When Watts returned to London from Italy he was traumatized by the extremes of riches and poverty that he could see all about him.  It moved him and he realised that through his art he could bring home the inequalities of life.

The background of the painting is the London skyline and we are viewing it from under Waterloo Bridge and in the distance we can just make out Hungeford Suspension Bridge.  Waterloo Bridge had been a common place for suicides with people throwing themselves off the structure into the Thames.  In the foreground Watts has painted a “fallen woman”, a reasonably common subject in Victorian paintings.  She has drowned and been washed up on the shores of the Thames. Was it an accident or had life proved just too much for her to bear?  In those days, female suicides caused by adulterous relationships or financial hardship, which then led to prostitution, were not uncommon happenings.   Her body is lit up and is in stark comparison to the darkened background.  Her dress still floats in the murky polluted waters.  She is lying on her back with her arms stretched out in a cruciform adding religious symbolism to the picture.  In her left hand she is clutching hold of a chain, attached to which is a heart-shaped locket and this again makes us believe that unrequited love may have had some bearing on the situation.  In the night sky we see a very bright pin-point of light which could be a star of the planet Venus and Watts probably added this as a symbol of hope that maybe there will be a better after-life for the dead woman.  Look at the young woman’s face.  It appears calm.  Maybe at last she is at peace with herself.

It is interesting to note that the title of the painting Found Drowned was legal phraseology often used by coroners when there is no conclusive evidence of suicide, such as a note, and thus the coroner’s report avoids the stigma attached to suicides, which would automatically rule out a Christian Burial.

I end today’s blog with the Thomas Hood’s poem Bridge of Sighs which it is believed was the basis of Watts’ painting.  Read it through and then look at the painting and see if you agree that there is a connection between the two.

One more Unfortunate,
Weary of breath,
Rashly importunate,
Gone to her death!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly
Young, and so fair!

Look at her garments
Clinging like cerements;
Whilst the wave constantly
Drips from her clothing;
Take her up instantly,
Loving, not loathing.

Touch her not scornfully;
Think of her mournfully,
Gently and humanly;
Not of the stains of her,
All that remains of her
Now is pure womanly.

Make no deep scrutiny
Into her mutiny
Rash and undutiful:
Past all dishonour,
Death has left on her
Only the beautiful.

Still, for all slips of hers,
One of Eve’s family—
Wipe those poor lips of hers
Oozing so clammily.

Loop up her tresses
Escaped from the comb,
Her fair auburn tresses;
Whilst wonderment guesses
Where was her home?

Who was her father?
Who was her mother?
Had she a sister?
Had she a brother?
Or was there a dearer one
Still, and a nearer one
Yet, than all other?

Alas! for the rarity
Of Christian charity
Under the sun!
O, it was pitiful!

Near a whole city full,
Home she had none.

Sisterly, brotherly,
Fatherly, motherly
Feelings had changed:
Love, by harsh evidence,
Thrown from its eminence;
Even God’s providence
Seeming estranged.

Where the lamps quiver
So far in the river,
With many a light
From window and casement,
From garret to basement,
She stood, with amazement,
Houseless by night.

The bleak wind of March
Made her tremble and shiver;
But not the dark arch,
Or the black flowing river:
Mad from life’s history,
Glad to death’s mystery,
Swift to be hurl’d—
Anywhere, anywhere
Out of the world!

In she plunged boldly—
No matter how coldly
The rough river ran—
Over the brink of it,
Picture it—think of it,
Dissolute Man!
Lave in it, drink of it,
Then, if you can!

Take her up tenderly,
Lift her with care;
Fashion’d so slenderly,
Young, and so fair!

Ere her limbs frigidly
Stiffen too rigidly,
Decently, kindly,
Smooth and compose them;
And her eyes, close them,
Staring so blindly!

Dreadfully staring
Thro’ muddy impurity,
As when with the daring
Last look of despairing
Fix’d on futurity.

Perishing gloomily,
Spurr’d by contumely,
Cold inhumanity,
Burning insanity,
Into her rest.—
Cross her hands humbly
As if praying dumbly,
Over her breast!

Owning her weakness,
Her evil behaviour,
And leaving, with meekness,
Her sins to her Saviour!

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About jonathan5485

Just someone who is interested and loves art. I am neither an artist nor art historian but I am fascinated with the interpretaion and symbolism used in paintings and love to read about the life of the artists and their subjects.
This entry was posted in Art, Art Blog, Art display, Art History, English artist, Realism and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Found Drowned by George Frederic Watts

  1. So happy to have found your blog. Wonderful article on George Frederic Watts, one of the many artists I had not heard of, but will be researching. Haunting painting.

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